International focus on resilience is surging as evidence mounts for a world endangered by climate change, armed conflict and terrorism, unprecedented flows of refugees, pandemics, educational and health disparities, and economic volatility. In addition, concern is growing about the consequences of adverse childhood experiences on lifelong health and well-being (Masten & Barnes, 2018). Across many disciplines and sectors, people are asking what can be done to promote resilience of individuals and societies to prepare and respond effectively in these turbulent times. Research on human adaptation and development suggests that schools have important roles to play in the resilience of children and societies.
Legends and tales from cultures around the world suggest that people have been fascinated since ancient times by stories of individuals overcoming adversity. Systematic research on human resilience began about five decades ago, when pioneers studying children at risk due to adversity or poverty realized that there was striking variation in their outcomes (Masten, 2014b). Some children thrived while others struggled. Much of this variation was evident in the school context and many educators collaborated with early researchers as they sought to understand how children overcome risk to do well in school and how schools could nurture and support resilience.
One of the most interesting observations on the history of resilience science is how research emerged simultaneously in psychological sciences and ecology with virtually no cross-fertilization (Masten, 2014a). Both areas of scholarship were influenced by general systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1968), but it would be decades before scholars in these two major lines of resilience science began to integrate their ideas and findings to tackle problems that span multiple disciplines and systems, such as disasters. As a more unified perspective on resilience in ecology and social sciences emerges, it is clear that schools play key roles with respect to environmental sustainability and promoting resilience in child development.
What is Resilience?
Over the years, the definition of resilience in human development evolved and shifted to align with other disciplines concerned with how complex systems adapt, including ecology and medicine. Efforts to address global threats such as climate change, terrorism, and disease pandemics has made it abundantly clear that solutions require integrated ideas and knowledge from multiple disciplines.
Resilience refers generally to the capacity of a system to adapt successfully to challenges that threaten system function, survival, or development (Masten, 2014a, b). This definition is scalable across systems levels (from molecular to sociocultural systems) and is portable across disciplines. It can be applied to diverse systems, including the human immune system, a whole person, a family, an economy, a business organization, or an ecosystem. Resilience can refer to the capacity of an individual, a city, or a coral reef to adapt to changes that threaten the system.
The capacity of one person or system to adapt is related to the resilience of other systems. Child resilience depends on family, school, and community resilience. Indeed, human individuals have capacity to adapt and recover in the face of adversity because they have so many resources and supports available through their relationships and connections to other systems in their sociocultural environments over the life course (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006; Masten & Barnes, 2018). The capacity of school-aged children to overcome adversity comprises not only the capabilities of the individual, but also the relevant resources and help available at a given time through their families, friends, teachers, neighbors, schools, cultural organizations, community emergency systems, and many other potential protective systems in the environment.
The Shortlist of Protective Factors for Resilience in Children and Youth
Research on resilience in human development was led by clinical scientists and educators who were motivated to identify the promotive or protective influences that explained good outcomes in the context of risk and adversity (Masten, 2014b). They had a practical goal: to understand these processes as they naturally occurred to guide interventions to foster resilience in other children at risk for poor adaptation.
Decades of research focused on different adverse childhood experiences in children from varying backgrounds revealed findings that were initially surprising in their consistency. Diverse studies suggested very similar factors, a “shortlist” of common protective factors for children that support resilience (see sidebar). Some were intrapersonal, within the person, such as cognitive skills, selfcontrol, or motivation. Others were interpersonal, within supportive relationships, most notably with caregivers early in life and later with teachers, friends, mentors, romantic partners, and other important adults. Many were embedded in family life, including family routines, a sense of belonging, and effective child management skills. Still others were part of the sociocultural context and community, such as effective schools, supportive practices of religions or cultures, and communities with safety and supports for children (Masten, 2014b; Masten & Motti-Stefanidi, 2009). The shortlist suggests there are fundamental adaptive systems that foster human competence and resilience across diverse threats to human development. These adaptive systems were likely selected and shaped over time in biological and cultural evolution because of their value for surviving and adapting successfully.
Evidence on sociocultural context and community protective factors suggests that effective schools contribute to resilience in children (Masten, 2014b; Ungar, Connelly, Liebenberg, & Theron, 2017). Like families, effective schools directly protect children by ensuring they are safe from danger, while nurturing the developing capacities of children for future resilience through teaching and support of their cognitive, social, and emotional skills. By nurturing the capacity of individual children to handle adversity, effective schools also build the future capacity of communities and societies for resilience.
How Effective Schools and Education Matter for Resilience of Children and Youth
Schools play multiple roles for children in promoting the development of competence and fostering the capacity of children to adapt to current and future adversities (Masten, 2014b; Masten & Motti-Stefanidi, 2009; Motti-Stefanidi, 2018). Schools protect children directly by providing food, safety, and relationships with caring adults, while teaching children cognitive and socioemotional skills and knowledge that enhance their lifelong resilience.
Early childhood education programs as well as K-12 schools often provide children from disadvantaged or unsafe homes with basic necessities, such as food, as well as safety, daily routines, and healthcare. Close to 100,000 schools participate in the National School Lunch Program in the U.S., which serves an average of 30 million lunches a day, including 22 million free or reduced-price meals for children living in poverty (School Nutrition Association, n.d.).
There also is increasing awareness among educators that many of their students are exposed to trauma at home or at school. Attention to this issue has spurred a national movement to create more trauma-informed services in schools (Overstreet & Chafouleas, 2016). Trauma-focused professional development training enhances staff awareness and knowledge about the effects of trauma on student behavior and effective practices for supporting and educating students with a history of trauma.
Effective schools prepare children for adversities posed by common as well as rare dangers, including bullying, fire, severe storms, or school shooters. Anti-bullying campaigns, fire drills, training to shelter in place for tornadoes, and lock-down drills are all forms of safety education. Practice drills can function as stress-inoculation training for students and teachers in preparation for different kinds of emergencies. Clearly, some training and practice is crucial to prepare for disasters. Yet schools must strike a balance between readiness and fear-induction, particularly for children of widely varying ages and personalities.
School is a primary context for achieving developmental tasks of learning and socialization in all societies where children attend school. Children in all communities are expected to acquire skills over the course of development to meet expectations for succeeding in their community or society (Masten, 2014b). Some of these developmental tasks are universal, such as learning to communicate and get along with other people. Some are very common, such as learning to read, while others are specific to a particular sociocultural context or historical period, such as learning to hunt or weave. Schools as institutions are typically expected to prepare children to meet basic expectations of the community or society for knowledge and skills. At the same time, schools also are expected to socialize children to participate in civic life, for example to be engaged citizens, to follow rules of conduct in the community, and to get along with others.
Schools foster the skills, motivation, and relationships that have been strongly implicated as protective factors supporting resilience among children who experience adversity or disadvantages (Masten, 2014b; Masten & Motti-Stefanidi, 2009). These skills include cognitive skills (reading, math, problem-solving, planning); self-regulation (of attention, behavior, and emotions); and the motivation to persist and achieve. How does this happen? Schools cultivate these skills through many processes, including the effects of positive relationships with educators, good teaching, role modeling by teachers and other students, and through opportunities to experience success. For children who may lack positive role models at home, effective schools provide many opportunities to observe and interact with competent, caring adults, as well as prosocial peers.
How Effective Schools and Education Matter for the Resilience of Communities and Societies
When children migrate or grow up in multicultural societies, schools serve important roles in processes of acculturation and developing intercultural competence for all students (Motti-Stefanidi, 2018). It is therefore not surprising that a number of efforts to reduce intergroup conflict and prejudice have focused on school programs (Vedder & Motti-Stefanidi, 2016).
Schools also play broader roles with respect to resilience. By nurturing the human and social capital of children, schools generally build the future capacity of their communities and societies. Competence in childhood promotes later competence in work, family life, and civic engagement: competence begets competence (Masten, 2014b). Thus, schools that promote competence and resilience are investing in the future of society.
Schools are powerful symbols of civic life and important social centers. Thus, it is not surprising that educators and schools have central roles in the emergency response systems of communities (Masten & Narayan, 2012). In the aftermath of major disasters and wars, restoring schools to operational condition or building new schools can play an important role in the perception of the whole community, as well as individual children and parents, that life is returning to normal. In refugee camps, humanitarian agencies often establish schools for children in response to the desire of families and children to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.
Hurricane Katrina had devastating effects on a large geographical area in 2005. One of the hardest hit areas in metropolitan New Orleans was St. Bernard Parish, where virtually all homes and schools sustained major damage from storm surge and flooding. After the water receded, school officials were determined to restart school, even though conditions were still very challenging and federal emergency managers were reluctant for schools to resume. St. Bernard school leaders went ahead and started a consolidated school, building into their curriculum activities and processes intended to help their students and families regain a sense of equilibrium, hope, and life-as-usual. School leaders formed a partnership with faculty from the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center with the aim of fostering student resilience. In consultation with national experts, this team developed a Youth Leadership Program aimed at promoting self-efficacy and recovery. Participating students designed projects with a service-learning focus, such as rebuilding wetlands and hosting a leadership summit for community leaders and youth. Students made a DVD thanking people who helped rebuild their parish that has been shown at local and national events. A recent evaluation of the program found positive effects on self-efficacy among participants (Osofsky, Osofsky, Hansei, Lawrason, & Speier, 2018).
Effective schools teach values and knowledge pertinent to resilience in many different ways. Articles in previous issues of Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly illustrate how exemplary green schools foster awareness and student knowledge about the environment and sustainable practices. In the process, green schools are promoting the potential of their students to contribute to global sustainability in the future and become environmentally conscious adults. In the Fall 2017 issue, David Sobel reviewed nature-based early childhood approaches to education (Sobel, 2017). These programs emerged in reaction to increasing pressure on preschools to reduce play-based curricula in favor of test-oriented learning that often left young children seated for long periods of time indoors. Sobel described why nature-oriented preschool programs have sprung up in multiple countries and how they may foster adult environmental behavior. In the Winter 2017 issue, Ghita Carroll described how Boulder Valley School District in Colorado evolved from its early efforts to become a greener district, developing a sustainability management system and assuming national leadership in environmental sustainability and the green schools movement (Carroll, 2017).
Similarly, within the sociocultural context, schools also can foster tolerance, appreciation for diversity, and peace through their curricula and activities (Bajaj & Hantzopoulos, 2016; Berger, Benatov, Abu-Raiya, & Tadmor, 2016; Gollnick & Chinn, 2017). Leaders in the “peacebuilding” movement have emphasized the central role of education and schools in promoting a more peaceful world, along with a need for more research on their effectiveness in promoting peace (Leckman, Panter-Brick, & Salah, 2014; UNICEF, 2011). Schools have attempted to reduce prejudice and promote respect for diversity through many strategies, including multicultural education and “jigsaw classroom” methods that require children to collaborate to complete a project or solve a problem. The Extended Class Exchange Program, for example, was designed to reduce prejudice and promote positive intergroup attitudes among Israeli elementary students of Jewish and Palestinian heritage. Third- and fourth-grade students from different schools participated in twelve bi-monthly, four-hour group sessions featuring activities, games, and music. The activities were designed for students to become familiar with each other, learn about similarities and differences, and develop empathy through enjoyable and cooperative activities. A randomized controlled trial of this program showed that the program reduced stereotyped views and increased willingness to have social contact with peers from another ethnic background, with effects lasting fifteen months (Berger et al., 2016).
Peacebuilding and multicultural education may also begin in early childhood. Sesame Workshop, for example, has been active in creating programs for general populations of young children that encourage acceptance and appreciation of diversity. In addition, they have created special video stories for children of incarcerated parents and military parents. Recently, Sesame Workshop received major funding from the Gates Foundation to work with the International Rescue Committee to create educational materials for Syrian refugee children.
The resilience of children, families, schools, communities, and societies are deeply interconnected. All schools have multifaceted roles to play in the resilience of their students, their communities, and their future societies. Schools directly protect children and prepare them for the future by fostering their capacities for resilience. Schools can provide an emotional safety zone and opportunities to build social support and socioemotional skills fundamental to future relationships.
Green schools additionally foster resilience in communities and societies through their leadership, modeling, and teaching focused on sustainability goals and ecological resilience. Children in green schools gain a deep understanding of resilience in complex systems and their own power to make a difference. Green schools model the message of sustainability and engage their students in meaningful projects that facilitate awareness and active learning. Whether the focus is on clean air and water, recycling, or climate change, students in green schools gain values, skills, and experiences that enhance ecological as well as psychosocial resilience.
From a long-term perspective of communities, societies, and ecosystems, schools nurture resilience for the future. They cultivate the capabilities, knowledge, and motivation that foster resilience in their students to overcome adversity over the life course. Schools also can convey important values, meaning, hope, and coherence to communities recovering from adversities. In multiple ways, schools have vital roles to play in the resilience of individual children and their environments.